Q&A with Debi Kensell


Larry Carroll

Today she’s the Executive Director and CEO of the Restaurant Facility Management Association, but this mosaic-loving, former graphics designer in the oil business and grandmother of two has forged a fascinating, circuitous path to get here. We sat down with Debi Kensell, Executive Director & CEO of  the Restaurant Facility Management Association (RFMA) to reflect on her career path and current leadership role at RFMA. Read the full interview below.

Tell us about RFMA and your current role.

RFMA was established in 2004 by a group of restaurateurs that believed there was a unique need of education in restaurant facilities to warrant a standalone association. RFMA was created to do just that, educate, and provide opportunities for members to build relationships with industry partners coming together to network about facilities and vendor needs.

What are the mission and goals of RFMA?

Our mission is to equip restaurant facility professionals to advance their careers and organizations. Our goal is primarily to elevate their status within their companies and within their industry peers. When I started in the association world of facilities there were very few high-level positions within the facilities departments. Today we see VP’s of facilities throughout our restaurant member companies.

How many members does RFMA have?

Over 1450 individual members representing over 250 restaurant brands; we have over 400 vendor companies.

What are some of the benefits of being a RFMA member?

The biggest benefit is building your restaurant facilities network when you join the RFMA family. Members receive free education through webinars and the CRFP Prep Course as well as discounted rates for the CRFP exam and meeting registrations. Each member receives the Facilitator, the official association magazine. We have a weekly newsletter called the Dish to keep members aware of upcoming events and opportunities. As a member they can look up members in areas all across the United States, whether they need a service provider or a peer to discuss needs in a certain region. Our restaurant members always say we’re not trading recipes, just trying to keep our stores up and running, our network helps with that.

What was the path you took to get to where you are today?

Association Management is my second career. I worked in the oil industry for 20 years doing geological mapping of seismic data for Conoco, Diamond Shamrock, and Maxus Energy. While working at Maxus in the late 90’s the company was bought out and the Dallas office was closed. One of my coworkers was helping her brother and several retailers start an association and because of my volunteer work at Maxus for the United Way campaign and the annual golf tournament, she asked me to come on as their meeting planner. I joined Meeting Planners International and began taking all offered curriculum to enhance my meeting planning skills. During my tenure at PRSM, now known as Connex, I was the regional meeting planner and moved into Education in 2003. I joined RFMA in 2008 as the Membership and Education Manager and then became the Education Director in 2010, then after a couple of leadership changes was promoted to Executive Director in September of 2021.

What has been the proudest moment in your career?

I have always been validated by the success of my contributions at each entity, but my proudest moment was when the RFMA Board of Directors put their trust and faith in me to lead the association through my role as Executive Director & CEO. RFMA is one of the best organizations I’ve ever been associated with, and our staff team is one of the best in the industry. Having their respect and support has been invaluable in this new role.

Who has inspired you as a leader?

I had the privilege of working with Tracy Tomson, RFMA’s Executive Director from inception through 2020. I never felt like I worked for Tracy, she had the ability to make everyone feel like they were the most important person on the team while not favoring any of us over the other. She also volunteered for many organizations while running RFMA and raising 3 daughters. She’s a special individual and we remain friends today. I use many skills I learned from working with her to manage RFMA today.

What do you feel is the biggest strength of RFMA right now? Any challenges?

Hands down the culture our members and leadership have created. It really feels like a family reunion when we’re onsite at our conference each year. Our biggest challenge is the ever-changing workspace and economy. We always say our biggest competitor is our member’s time. We put a lot of energy into our conference to make it worthwhile for them to be out of the office.

Tell us about the RFMA conference 2023

We are very excited about our RFMA 2023 conference. The exhibit hall is close to being sold out. Registration for attendees will go live on November 1. We have secured our Keynotes and Signature Speakers and are working to develop curriculum for the breakout sessions. We are in the planning stage for the opening and closing parties, but I promise San Antonio will be a fun host city that will provide lots of time for networking and education.

Is RFMA launching anything new this year for the 2023 conference that we should be aware of?

We have several programs launching this month.

• RFMA kicked off our new Partner Program for our vendor members. The Partner Program is an opportunity for year-round exposure and additional conference exposure for vendor members. Partners receive the exclusive RFMA Partner logo along with extensive benefits at the conference AND all year long. We will be looking for a Leadership RFMA Partner, a CRFP Partner, and a Females in Facilities Partner next!

• We also have an ambassador program for all first-time exhibitors the Vendor Communication Task force has developed. They will meet with first-time exhibitors leading into the RFMA conference on topics such as maximizing the vendor membership, conference schedule review, logistics for show, express exchange, and post-conference conversations. This program is to ensure that all first-time exhibitors have a successful first-year/conference experience. Our goal is that this will lead to developing more sponsors and partners over time.

• During the 2023 Annual Conference we will have the Conference Connect Café which will allow first-time attendees an opportunity to socialize and feel “welcomed” at RFMA 2023. First-time attendees will be matched with a guide prior to the conference. During the event, attendees will have the opportunity to: socialize with their “guide”, meet other first-time attendees, and ask questions about the Conference.

What was your favorite RFMA Conference to date? Do you have a favorite city to host?

My favorite conference was bittersweet. We created a really gorgeous setting for RFMA 2020 and a big send-off for our retiring Executive Director, Tracy Tomson. The day we were traveling to the event cancellations started due to COVID-19. It was an amazing event, but unfortunately, about 250 attendees had to cancel due to travel restrictions and a few of our exhibitors. It was still a great event, and we were very fortunate to be able to execute it. We were the last conference at the Gaylord Rockies during the shutdown. We are doing the Rockies in 2026 and hope all the people that missed 2020 will be able to attend then. Favorite city to host? Nashville was amazing this year. Our attendees seemed to really love the city and venues connected with the conference.

Outside of the RFMA Conference, RFMA holds additional round table meetings, events and opportunities to get involved in some great causes, can you tell us a little more?

We have some really great events starting this month. Please check out the RFMA events page at www.rfmaonline.com to register for anything upcoming. My favorite event each year is our RFMA Gives Volunteer Day. This year were in San Marcos, Texas at the Southside Community Center. We had over 150 volunteers onsite. It was a wonderful day spent with our members improving the Community Center and Retirement Homes so they can better support the community. We do this every year in the city we are hosting our conference. Unfortunately, San Antonio did not have a perfect match for what we do so we chose San Marcos thirty minutes north of the city.

What are some of your interests outside of RFMA?

I have two grandchildren that I love spending time with, I love to get to the beach when I can, and I am a mosaic and stained-glass hobbyist.

Anything additional you’d like to share with us?

Just that I would encourage anyone in the industry who is not yet a RFMA member to join. We really are here as a resource to help you be more successful in your career and for you personally. The friendships I’ve made through RFMA over the past 14+ years mean the world to me. I’m looking forward to seeing many of them in San Antonio, March 19 – 21, 2023.